Morven looks terrifying and the Scarabens glower. Before moving off we admire a four-antlered head, shot the previous week.
Like the stags we are after, it has been shot as part of the estate’s programme of culling the old, the infirm and the malformed “switches”, the stags with spiky antlers that can maim or kill a rival during the rut.
We cruise slowly up the Langwell strath stopping frequently to spy out the land. Jamesie, the stalker, and the gamekeeping student from Thurso College see deer with the naked eye, beyond every hillock, tussock and fold of the hill. With years of inexperience I can see absolutely nothing without binos and then not much, although things improve.
We spot a fox in broad daylight slinkily working his way up a steep face across the river, but we can’t get the rifle out of its slip fast enough. A shootable stag is spotted. We crouch and creep and crawl and there, eventually, he is, 150 yards away, lying down chewing the cud. But he needs to stand if I am to get a shot.
After a bit we are all getting bored so Jamesie roars at him, impersonating a stag, to make him think there’s a rival on the go. He is not remotely bothered. Jamesie eventually shows himself and he trots away, disdainfully presenting his unshootable rump.
“He’ll turn, he’ll turn,” says Jamesie. And sure enough, he turns and stands in profile three quarters on. Hold your breath, safety catch off, squeeeeze... too late. He’s off. More experience and I might have had him.
We see snipe, a dog otter playing, the black backs of spawning salmon in the burn shallows, grouse and hundreds of deer. But not another shootable stag.
The next day on neighbouring Braemore, a beautiful vastness dominated by Maiden Pap we cast about until a shootable beast is spotted and stalked. He is in my sights, but moves. Remarkably another one appears 50 yards to the right. The bipod catches in the heather as I switch target. Disaster looms. But he stands long enough. The shot is slightly high but he drops dead with a thump.
Irreverently the ditty “If it’s reed it’s deid, if it’s broon it’s doon,” runs through my head.
Five hours later Malcolm my host and Jim, the Braemore keeper successfully stalk a beast more than three quarters of a mile up an almost open hillside. “I knew it would be hard,” said Jim, which I take to be the Caithnessian equivalent of “Whoopee, we did it.”